Notes on Content (and Design)

If you were starting a new magazine, where would you start? You’d probably have a big thematic idea about what your magazine was about and would be thinking about structure. And you would almost certainly be in contact with writers and photographers and artists who would be providing articles, pictures, and illustrations.

Here’s what you wouldn’t do if you wanted your magazine to live past a couple of issues: start with the design, then then try to fill it with stuff that hopefully fits into the aesthetic.

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(photo by Snap Man) 

In my previous life, I worked in the magazine world (hence this extended metaphor), and everywhere, every month, I saw design following a strong editorial vision. Imagine my surprise, then, when I started getting involved in interactive media, first on the web and then in physical interactives, and saw the opposite happening. Full websites designed before a word was written! Not one discussion about who was going to use the site! No big articulated vision! Lorem Ipsum everywhere! Oy!

The focus on laying conceptual foundations and on considering real content is thankfully becoming more and more prominent in interactive media: witness all of the recent discussion around content strategy (featured at several panels at SXSW Interactive this past year) and the fact that so many agencies and studios are hiring content strategists.

I can understand the impulse, in interactive media, to rush into design. It can seem easier to make it look really cool, because it’s so easy to change the content. There are other practical reasons, too. Production schedules necessitate that all elements of a project need to keep moving forward, sometimes on separate tracks, so it can be difficult to insist that we stop the presses to get everyone on the same page.

That’s perhaps especially true when in comes to designing interactive installations, a large part of what we do at Second Story. On any given project we might be working with architects, AV integrators, and exhibit designers, not to mention our own developers and engineers. But that’s exactly why it’s important to have these discussions early and often and to make it clear what our vision is right from the start, but also to start thinking about what will be filling the beautiful boxes we’re all designing.

The need for strategic content planning doesn’t end when a site launches. We need to constantly be thinking about the marriage of design and content along the entire lifecycle of a project. Printed magazines, too, fall into this trap all the time, and they lose readership.

And technology keeps adding complexity: As we start embracing user-generated content in our interactive installations, that editorial control slips a bit, and the messaging can become messy. That’s fine as long as you’re aware of it and that the design can accomodate that idea. As always, we might look to the world of magazines. Over its 85-year history, The New Yorker has made drastic changes but always maintained a similar design sensibility.

None of this is to suggest that design is an afterthought. (My designer colleagues would not be happy with me if I were to suggest that. So I won’t.) Rather, content and design have to be partners in communicating the core stories we’re trying to tell.

—Scott Smith, Content Strategist

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Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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Posted in Content, Design